A federal appeals court panel ruled Tuesday that House Democrats are entitled to review Donald Trump’s tax returns for 2015 to 2020, rejecting several legal arguments by the former president, who has sought for years to keep his financial records private.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was a victory for the House Ways and Means Committee, whose chairman, Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., first requested in 2019 that the Internal Revenue Service turn over copies of Trump’s tax returns to the committee. The Treasury Department initially declined, and the issue has been tied up in litigation ever since.
The former president has a week to appeal the panel’s ruling, including asking the full appellate court to hear the case, before the judgment takes effect. Trump’s attorney Cameron T. Norris, who is handling the appeal, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., applauded the decision, calling it “an important victory for the rule of law.”
“Access to the former president’s tax returns is crucial to upholding the public interest, our national security and our Democracy,” Pelosi said in a statement. “We look forward to the IRS complying with this ruling and delivering the requested documents so that Ways and Means can begin its oversight responsibilities of the mandatory presidential audit program.”
The panel’s 3-0 ruling caps another round in the legal battle between Trump – who promised as a presidential candidate to eventually release his tax returns but never did – and the committee, which argues that it is entitled by federal law to review any person’s taxes in the process of creating stronger financial-disclosure and auditing legislation.
After Trump left office, the committee in 2021 renewed its request for his tax returns, and the Biden administration’s Treasury Department agreed to provide them, which prompted a lawsuit by Trump.
In trying to keep his records private, Trump asserted that the committee had no “legitimate legislative purpose” for seeking the tax returns; that the committee was violating the separation of powers; that the law allowing the committee to review tax returns is “facially unconstitutional”; and that the Treasury Department, in agreeing to turn over the records, was violating Trump’s constitutional rights by retaliating against him.
The appellate panel rejected all four arguments.
The committee has “identified a legitimate legislative purpose that it requires information to accomplish,” the ruling says. “The mere fact that individual members of Congress may have political motivations as well as legislative ones is of no moment. Indeed, it is rare that an individual member of Congress would work for a legislative purpose without considering the political implications.”
As for the separation of powers, “this case has required much discussion of the intrusion by Congress into the Executive Branch and the personal life of (Trump) and the burden that such intrusions impose,” the decision says. While that burden “is concrete,” it is “tenuous at best,” and is “insufficient to require us to enjoin the Chairman’s Request for the returns and return information.”
In rejecting Trump’s claim that the law that allows the committee to review tax returns is unconstitutional, the ruling says, “This statute can be properly applied in numerous circumstances, including the one before the court.”
And the panel rejected the assertion that President Biden’s Treasury Department was violating Trump’s constitutional rights by acting with an improper motive – retribution – when it agreed to the committee’s request for the tax returns.
“The improper motive must be a but-for cause of the government action, ‘meaning that the adverse action against the plaintiff would not have been taken absent the retaliatory motive,’” the ruling notes. Trump “cannot show that Treasury’s decision to comply with the 2021 Request would not have happened absent a retaliatory motive.”
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